Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley (California) Merlot, 2006 ($52): Of all the producers in California, Duckhorn Vineyards is probably the one most closely associated with Merlot. Duckhorn has made celebrated Merlots since its first harvest, in 1978, and the success of its Three Palm Vineyards Merlot in particular was undoubtedly an impetus behind the emergence of Merlot as one of California's major red varietal wines.
These days, Duckhorn makes relatively small amounts of the Three Palms Merlot and since 1995 has made an Estate Merlot (both are priced at $85). This Napa Valley Merlot, which has been a staple for the winery since 1979, is Duckhorn's other Merlot, and the one that you can most easily get your hands on. Its source is grapes from the winery's estate vineyard as well as from top independent growers in Napa Valley.
This is a splendid Merlot, a textbook example of the grape's characteristics and a very fine wine. It is not only satisfying sensually, but also intellectually because it is such a true rendition of Merlot's virtues and style.
The wine's aroma is medium intense, suggesting fresh, ripe, dark plum and delicate tea-leaf notes, with just a whiff of lead pencil minerality buried within. To the taste, the wine is dry and full-bodied with very fine-grained tannins, and ripe but subtle flavors that echo its aromas, with a note of bitter chocolate also making an appearance. Although the wine is fairly dry-textured it delivers a sense of plumpness in its ripe fruit character. Its acidity brings a lift to the taste, while its tannins artfully counterbalance the 14.5% alcohol.
The aromas and flavors of this wine (plum, tea, chocolate) are classic Merlot as is its structure (fine tannins, high alcohol, full body). Perhaps just as descriptive is what this wine is not: not sweet, not juicy, not jammy, not obvious, not showy. This is an elegant wine.
This wine is almost entirely Merlot - 96% -- with Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot making up the balance, in equal amounts. It aged for 16 months in French oak barrels, 30 percent of which were new and 70% of which were in their second use.
I like this wine in a large Bordeaux-style glass. The Riedel Vinum series Bordeaux glass in particular accentuates the wine's fruit character and plumpness. In terms of food pairings, I favor fairly subtle and straightforward dishes such as grilled meats, roasts, grilled vegetables or mushroom risotto. It will also be great with bean dishes that are not very spicy, and with pot roast or stews -- and of course, hard cheeses.